Science Fiction Studies

#29 = Volume 10, Part 1 = March 1983


A Topology of Film Genres

After reading Robert M. Philmus's review of Mark Rose's Alien Encounters (SFS No. 26, pp. 89-92), with its extended discussion of the topological representation of genre, it occurred to me that the enclosed chart, from my American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films (Ann Arbor, MI: Pierian Press, 1982), might be of interest to SFS readers.               

Basically, the chart represents a tentative proposal for a unified genre theory in regard to the film medium, apportioned among ten genres in three modes (tragic/heroic; moralizing/melodramatic; and comic/ironic). The diagram is to be taken not as a pie shape but as a doughnut or torus, with the darkest ironic films merging into mythic and then heroic/tragic "on the back" of the torus; it aims to clarify some of the problems in defining the SF film, notably its tendency to fade into fantasy or war types. More important, all other genres are rooted in strong assumptions about society and behavior. Only SF, in tension between an amoral No Man's land and dream/fantasy counterparts of life, is interested in an "unknown" tomorrow. "Futuristic" films exist in other genres—e.g., Outland (western), Deathrace 2000 (contest), Heartbeeps (outlaws), but are weak satires in those genres at best. Significantly, they are often despised by SF afficionadoes, who sense their lack of the genre's characteristic themes, mood, and tone.                

Most SF films, however, resolve tensions between war and fantasy genres. Destination Moon fantasizes the "high tech mission" (as in Airforce); The Thing, the all-powerful enemy (as in Lifeboat); Nineteen Eighty-Four enemy occupation (as in The Seventh Cross); 2001: A Space Odyssey "transcendental" combats (as in Potemkin and Patton). Likewise, Star Wars and E. T. are dream counterparts of key life events, employing war motifs. By way of anticipatory negative argument "SF-detective" works such as The Caves of Steel and The Demolished Man use war contexts (a Spacers/Cities War; a 23rd-century Hitler), fantastic detectives (a mindreader, a perfect logician) and crimes that are Cosmic Turning Points rather than products of corrupt Everymen. Likewise, "social comment SF," such as The Space Merchants, is usually economic warfare fantasy (here the ad agencies, run by Good and Bad Fathers, rule, while advertising itself is the Spiritual "Force" that can bend anyone's mind.)                

Another key relationship is between upper (sublimated) genres and lower subversive ones. Thus detective films may be seen as morally pure counterparts of works dealing with love/eroticism (e.g., The Maltese Falcon is a Vertigo or Last Tango with the heroine's sexuality and ambivalence and the hero's aggression transformed into feminine sociopathic evil and masculine moralizing). Likewise, SF/horror sublimates the madness and amoral contest/success genres (e.g., Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a distanced Psycho or Persona; Destination Moon and Them! sublimate Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Setup, and so forth). Compared to their "subversive counterparts," the SF works are bleak, stiff, and repressed, but such is the way of sublimation! The rich interior landscape of personality is externalized as spectacular art direction and special effects.                

In terms of unified genre theory, the "possibilities" of SF are as enormous (yet bounded) as any genre, particularly since they are linked to those which dominate modern consciousness: war, fantasy, madness, and success/contest. Thus Pat Frank's Air War in Vietnam reincarnates Wells's Martians, with their over whelming technology, in its point that "Vietnamese villages had about the same chances as modern American towns attacked by spaceships with death rays"; and both Pal's The War of the Worlds and Copolla's Apocalypse Now are successful precisely to the extent that they depict the same thing (and the underlying immorality of it). Again, The Man in the White Suit—SF as sublimated economic warfare fantasy—is also genre demystification, notably in regard to its climax, when a raging, wheelchair-bound capitalist (publisher/producer?) leads citizens in a mad attack on the film's innocent "Dr Frankenstein" and thereby diverts them from their class interests. Indeed, I would argue that any genre works by exploiting a clear tension in the unified-genres configuration.                

The most important point to be made about the unified genre theory, at least from my point of view as a student of films, is that SF genre is in no way privileged. All genres. so far as I can tell, were created equal; and SF does not. for instance, have a monopoly on ideas over all other film genres.—Norman Kagan


The Seventh Annual Institute on the Teaching of SF

From July 11-29th, the University of Kansas will again offer teachers of SF an opportunity to obtain a basic understanding of their subject, what it is and how it got to be that way and what difference it makes, and insights into the teaching of SF—all in a solidly packed three weeks of heated discussions and interactions.                

Teachers and graduate students will be able to earn six graduate credits in "Science Fiction" and "Studies in a Genre" at the lowest possible costs. Academic fees (as always, subject to change) will be $200 for Kansas residents and $464 for all others.                

For the first time the Institute will be able to provide a choice of housing costs. Our headquarters, on the west edge of the campus, offers two-bedroom apartments, each including kitchen facilities. Each bedroom has two twin beds. Normally two students share an apartment and split the cost, so that it comes to $190 each; students who don't mind sharing a bedroom can cut their housing cost to $95. Bed linens and towels are provided, but not cooking or eating implements.                

The academic program will be virtually identical to the outstandingly successful format of previous years that has produced many teachers of SF more comfortable with their courses and more knowledgeable about the genre, scholars who already have contributed papers to academic journals, writers who have sold stories to professional magazines, and readers who are getting more out of their favorite literature. The program works like this: students are asked to read 30 or so books before they arrive in Lawrence; the class sessions run from 9-12 a.m. and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.; on most evenings a professional writer speaks to the class formally or (mostly) informally from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Students are asked to prepare papers or stories in the month after the Institute ends, and on these the grades in the courses are based.                

The faculty will be, as usual, James Gunn and Stephen Goldman. We could provide student testimonials about their work together, but instead we will refer you to the Summer 1982 issue of Extrapolation and the article by former student Joseph J. Marchesani, "Chalkdust on the Stars: Learning to Teach Science Fiction."                

The visiting lecturers will be our loyal and faithful friends, Gordon Dickson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Frederik Pohl, who know SF better, and from more aspects, than almost anyone else. We also plan to have the Campbell Conference and the Campbell Award for the best SF novel of the year.                

Send your application now to me, c/o English Department, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045, along with your check for $50 as a deposit against fees. That deposit will be refunded, upon request, until May 1, 1983. —James Gunn

New Publications and Awards

We recently received a copy of the first number of La Città e le Stelle, a magazine edited by our colleague Carlo Pagetti and devoted (as the subtitle indicates) to "studies and research on SF." The maiden issue contains articles about John Wyndham, Brain Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, and Doris Lessing, along with Pagetti's own
"From Wells to Clarke: Ideological Models and Narrative Formulas (1895-1961)." The journal, which is wholly in Italian except for quotations from primary sources in other languages, costs 3000 lire per copy (ca. US$2.00). For further information, contact Editrice Nord/Via Rubens, 25/20148 Milano/Italy.                

Also of recent vintage is Velocities: A Magazine of Speculative Poetry, the subtitle of which should give an idea of the contents. At US$2.50 per issue, it is available from Andrew Joron/ 1509 Le Roy Ave./Berkeley. CA 94708/USA. (Checks or money orders should be made payable to Mr Joron, who requests a self-addressed stamped envelope.)                

Finally, Mr Robert Runte informs us that the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award for 1982 has been given to Phyllis Gotlieb for her Judgment of Dragons and also for her "lifetime contributions to science fiction." Readers of David Ketterer's essay in this issue of SFS may be interested to learn that the first recipient of this award, in 1980, was A.E. van Vogt. In 1981, it was bestowed posthumously on Susan Wood. This year's runners-up included our sometime contributors John Bell and John Robert Colombo. Winners are announced at the annual Convention, the next of which will take place in Ottawa, July 15-17th. (For details contact Robert Runte/P.O.B. 4655, P.S.S.E./Edmonton, Alberta T6E 5G5/Canada.


Three Upcoming Conferences

The Fifth Annual Eaton Conference, devoted this time to "Hard Core SF," will take place from April 9th to 10th at the University of California, Riverside. Guests of honor will be Brian Aldiss, Gregory Benford, Robert Forward, and James Gunn.                

The Conference at Nice originally planned for May (see SFS No. 28) has been rescheduled for April 21st-23rd. Participants will include James Ballard, Michel Jeury, David Ketterer, Patrick Parrinder, Robert Scholes, and Brian Stableford.               

This year's SFRA Conference will be held from June 9th to 12th in Midland, Michigan, and among the invitees are Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Judith Merril, Walter Miller, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle. Proposals for papers may still be submitted; write to Dr Joseph E. Debolt/Sociology Dept./Central Michigan Univ./Mt Pleasant, MI 48859/USA.


Of Interest to Wellsians

Leon Stover, Professor of Anthropology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has confirmed that the allusive phrase occurring towards the end of H.G. Wells's "Bio-Optimism" "is indeed to Robert Buchanan" [see H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, ed. R.M. Philmus & D.Y. Hughes (California UP,1975), p. 210, n. 4]. "The phrase Calvinism of Science,'" Professor Stover continues, comes from [Buchanan's] The Coming Terror (1891), which I have no doubt Wells read, as the title is echoed in one of his phrases in `The Extinction of Man.' An anti-socialist tract from the hand of the son of one of Robert Owen's `social missionaries.' I have found [the book] valuable in tracing the object of Wells's opposite idea' regarding his own brand of socialism. What Buchanan rails against, Wells embraces in much the same language. `The Coming Terror' is the coming scientific state in Utopia.' As Mr Polly says, `Queer incommunicable joy it is, the joy of the vivid phrase that turns the horridest fact to beauty!"'                

Professor Stover also mentions that he has recently authored The Shaving of Karl Marx. An Instant Novel of Ideas, After the Manner of Thomas Love Peacock, in which Lenin and H.G. Wells Talk about the Political Meaning of the Scientific Romances (Lake Forest. IL: Chiron Press. 1982). $10.00.


A New Publishing Venture

Elephant Books will be publishing a collection of historical documents on the development of SF to be edited by American author-critic Alexei Panshin and British author-critic Brian Stableford. The documents will include prefaces, afterwards, letters, interviews, essays, and other materials in which the ancestral writers of SF, from Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, explain their intentions. The editors welcome suggestions of appropriate material (please send them to me, POB 999/Dublin, PA 18917). Elephant Books also plans to do a second collection, of 20th-century material.
                                                                                                                —Alexei Panshin


moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home